no. 203
Basic selection of MV public
distribution networks
Didier Fulchiron
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no. 203
Basic selection of MV public
distribution networks
ECT 203 first issued May 2001
After graduating from the Ecole Supérieure d’Electricité in 1980, he
joined the technical department at Merlin Gerin’s high-power testing
station in 1981.
He then took part in various developments of medium-voltage
equipment, mainly destined for public distribution.
He now works for the Medium Voltage Division of Schneider Electric,
participating in the technical specification of Schneider equipment,
and is also involved in work on international standards committees.
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.2
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.3
Basic selection of MV public
distribution networks
Medium voltage - MV - public distribution networks are constructed on the
basis of two fundamental parameters which influence the majority of their
components as well as their operation. These parameters are the neutral
management mode and the operating voltage. Selection of these
parameters has a very high impact on the whole network, and it is very
difficult, if not impossible or economically unrealistic, to alter them
subsequently. It is therefore essential to fully understand the influence of
these decisions on other network parameters such as the protection
system, safety, fault management, etc.
This document details the limits imposed by these decisions and considers
the various existing solutions, pointing out their advantages and
1 Introduction 1.1 The neutral plan p. 4
1.2 Principal effects of this decision on the network components p. 4
1.3 System for protection against insulation failures (earth fault) p. 5
1.4 Safety of people and animals p. 5
1.5 Electromagnetic compatibility p. 6
1.6 The operating voltage p. 7
2 The existing network situation 2.1 Neutral earthing p. 8
2.2 Operating voltages p. 8
3 Characteristics of “4-wire” systems 3.1 Protection system for networks with distributed neutral (“4-wire”) p. 10
3.2 Operation of networks with distributed neutral (“4-wire”) p. 11
4 Characteristics of “3-wire” systems 4.1 Protection system for networks with non-distributed neutral (“3-wire”) p. 13
4.2 Operation of networks with non-distributed neutral (“3-wire”) p. 16
5 Operating voltage, selection criteria 5.1 Voltage losses and drops p. 18
5.2 Insulation difficulties and associated costs p. 18
5.3 Evolution of MV networks throughout the world p. 19
6 Conclusions p. 20
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.4
1 Introduction
1.1 The neutral plan
Impact on electrical characteristics
The neutral earthing mode for the HV/MV
transformer, and the choice of whether or not the
neutral conductor is distributed (hence the
distinction between “4-wire” and “3-wire”
networks) have a direct influence on a number of
significant network parameters.
c The earth fault current: In the event of a fault
between a phase and earth, the value of the fault
current is principally determined by the neutral
earthing impedance, and by the capacitance,
between earth and phase conductors, present on
the network (lines, cables and capacitors).
c Touch voltage and tread voltage: These two
concepts concern the safety of people in the
vicinity of an electrical fault. These voltages are
directly linked to the value of the earth fault
current and the impedances through which this
current flows.
c The level of overvoltages: Neutral earthing has
an effect on industrial frequency overvoltages
when earth faults occur, and also on the
amplitude and damping of possible oscillating or
transient phenomena.
c The level of disturbance of the surrounding
networks: In the case of overhead networks, the
loop through which an earth fault current flows
causes a strong magnetic field. Voltages are
then induced in the circuits of neighboring
networks, and typically in telecommunication
cabled networks (copper technology). The level
of these voltages may be unacceptable for
operation or even insulation of neighboring
equipment. Electromagnetic compatibility (EMC)
studies must therefore be conducted before an
MV line is installed.
Impact on the operating characteristics
A number of operating criteria are also affected
by neutral earthing:
c The permitted duration of earth faults (extent of
damage and safety)
c The behavior of flashovers in the air (whether
self-extinguishing or not)
c The methods used to locate the fault on the
c Voltage fluctuations at the load terminals
during earth faults
c The number and duration of faults noted by
c The possibility and ease of reconfiguration
following an incident
Impact on the construction specifications
The neutral earthing mode has a significant
influence on the construction of networks:
c The values of earth connection impedances
should be adapted to the fault current.
c The conductors affected by earth faults should
have adequate thermal withstand.
c The insulation on the conductors and the
equipment should take account of potential
overvoltages, influenced by the neutral plan.
1.2 Principal effects of this decision on the network components
The table in figure 1 lists certain significant
effects generated by the initial choice of a
neutral earthing system.
The earth fault hypothesis is always a major
consideration, since multi-phase faults are not
affected by neutral earthing.
This table demonstrates that several factors
(safety, quality of service and cost) are directly
affected by the value of the earth fault current.
The same applies to the safety of people (tread
and touch voltages), “voltage dips” on low
voltage, EMC with neighboring electrical circuits
(including telecommunications circuits), and
damage at the location of the fault. It confirms
there is no “perfect” neutral plan: advantages
and disadvantages are evenly distributed.
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.5
Fig. 1: Significant effects generated by the initial choice of a neutral earthing system
1.3 System for protection against insulation failures (earth fault)
The concept of a protection system combines
several aspects:
c Determination of the fault situations to be
c The selection and location of the switchgear
used to eliminate faults
c The selection and configuration of the relays
installed to monitor electrical values, diagnose
fault situations, then issue commands to open to
the switchgear
c The organization of discrimination between the
various relays, so that the device closest to the
fault is the only one to trip, minimizing the extent
of the de-energized zone
Designing a protection system therefore requires
analysis of the network and of the phenomena
present in a normal situation and during a fault,
familiarity with the possibilities for measurement
and analysis (sensors, relays, control systems,
etc) and a global approach to the subject in
order to determine the appropriate settings.
1.4 Safety of people and animals
The value of earth fault currents has
consequences on other aspects than simply the
operation of the network (see fig. 1). In particular,
during an earth fault, a current flows through the
conductors which are normally de-energized
(including the grounds and the earth) whose
configurations and impedances are not always
fully controlled. Voltage drops due to these
impedances present risks of electrocution for
living beings standing in the proximity of the fault.
Tread and touch voltages
In fact, if current is flowing through conductive
parts which are normally de-energized, including
the floor, the impedance of these conductive
parts may result in two points which are
accessible simultaneously being subjected to a
dangerous difference in voltage. Depending on
the type of contact made, we talk about touch
voltage (between two parts of the body, most
commonly between two hands) and tread
Neutral situation Isolated Tuned Impedant Directly earthed
Earth fault Linked to stray Almost zero, dep. Dep. on impedance: High: 2 to 25 kA,
current capacitance: on tuning and 100 to 2000 A varies with the
2 to 200 A quality factor (< 40 A) location
Damage Low Almost zero Dep. on impedance High
Voltage None None Low Significant
Restrictions Possible Thermal on Thermal on Thermal and
overvoltages the coil the impedance electrodynamic
Protection against Difficult Complex Easy (time “3-wire”: easy
earth faults discrimination) (current
Moreover, the relative importance of these
advantages varies according to how much of the
network consists of overhead lines and
underground cables, the feeder lengths, etc.
A decision thought to be judicious at a certain
point in time may therefore be called into
question once a network has evolved over a
number of years.
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.6
voltage (between two feet or two paws)
(see fig. 2).
Numerous standards and regulatory texts are
concerned with limiting the risk of electrocution.
But if the equipment impedances can be easily
determined and are stable over time, the same
cannot be said for the earth connection
impedances, whose low values are difficult to
Fig. 2: Examples of touch and tread voltages
Safety is therefore enhanced by a greater
tolerance vis-a-vis the earth connection
impedances, and simultaneously limiting the
value of the earth fault currents. International
standards have introduced a voltage-duration
formula to demonstrate what the human body
can withstand. The longer it takes to eliminate a
fault, the lower the maximum tread and touch
voltage values to be respected will therefore be.
1.5 Electromagnetic compatibility
Induction with regard to telecommunication
In “3-wire” networks, in a normal operating
situation, no current is circulating in the earth.
Only earth fault situations (see fig. 3) create a
significant magnetic field emission and need to
be considered in the electromagnetic
compatibility (EMC) studies.
For “4-wire” networks, in a normal operating
situation, the permitted load unbalance between
the various phases results in a current in the
neutral. This current is divided between the
neutral conductor and earth, since this neutral
conductor is earthed at a number of points. It is
therefore necessary to create a permanent
situation of emission of an industrial frequency
Fig. 3: Voltages induced by MV networks in telecommunication cabled network circuits
MV network fault current
Induced current on the
telecommunication network
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.7
magnetic field. However, at a comparable fault
current, the presence of the fourth conductor,
generally placed on the line supports, reduces
the emissive loop.
In all cases, radiation is due to the geometry of
the lines and is difficult to reduce, particularly
while adhering to a given system and overhead
network technology. The reduction of earth fault
currents, in 3-wire network systems, may
therefore be a more appropriate solution, since it
also participates in the safety of personnel as
described earlier.
When the users of these networks (energy and
communication) can work together, the
establishment of installation rules for their
respective lines can contribute to a reduction in
the magnetic coupling between their networks,
for example by reducing the “receptive” loop of
the disturbed circuit by using twisted cables
rather than parallel wires, or even by avoiding a
parallel line too close to the two networks
(see fig. 4).
But it is the increasing strictness of emission
standards which is leading ever more energy
distributors to reconsider their neutral
management modes.
Fig. 4: Reduction of the coupling between an MV
network and a telecommunication cabled network
HV/MV substation
Line B
The telephone network along line B will be subject
to less disturbance than that along line A.
MV overhead line
Telephone line
Note: Networks comprising underground cables
benefit from low earthing impedance of the
ground connections and electromagnetic
masking, due to the presence and
interconnection of screens. They are therefore
less affected by the factors discussed in sections
1.4 and 1.5.
1.6 The operating voltage
A compromise between conflicting
The following information should be considered
before choosing an operating voltage for a given
v the average length of the MV feeders
v the delivered power
v the losses
v the cost of insulation and equipment
v the history and the policy of the distributor
c The average length of the MV feeders: In fact,
the increased impedance of long feeders risks
generating unacceptable voltage drops.
Therefore, a vast geographical area, supplied
with a small number of HV/MV substations, will
require use of a somewhat higher operating
c The delivered power: For zones with a high
density of use, the feeders, even short ones,
have to serve numerous loads; for a given
voltage, their high currents then fix a limit on the
system, making a higher operating voltage the
preferred option.
c The losses: Although the voltage drops and
currents remain within acceptable limits, the
energy losses due to the Joule effect may
sometimes have a significant cost. Increasing
the operating voltage allows the energy loss to
be reduced for a given distributed power.
c The cost of insulation and equipment: The
higher the voltage, the greater the isolation
distances need to be. As a result, the amount of
work and the size of the switchgear has to be
increased, thus increasing the costs. Moreover,
certain technologies which are available for “low”
voltages are not available for higher voltages.
c The history and policy of the distributor: Apart
from the fact that it is very difficult to change
operating voltage, a distributor often chooses a
single operating voltage in order to rationalize his
equipment. If he has an extensive network, this
single voltage does not correspond to the
optimum, from a technical and cost point of view,
which could be selected for smaller geographical
areas. However, it does offer appreciable
opportunities for economy of scale and reuse of
The choice is limited to standard values
In order to be able to access an important
supplier market, and therefore benefit from
favorable competition conditions, a distributor
should limit his choice to standardized values so
as to ensure the availability of the various
equipment (isolators, cables, switchgear, etc)
from different manufacturers. The use of these
standardized values also means it is possible to
benefit from experience acquired by
manufacturers and by the standards
organizations. Finally, the existence of reference
standards simplifies contractual relations while
ensuring a good level of performance and
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.8
2 The existing network situation
2.1 Neutral earthing
Networks can be classified according to two
major categories:
c Those where the neutral is distributed (4-wire
c Those where the neutral is not distributed
In theory, each of these categories can use
neutral earthing connections with varying
impedance values (see fig. 5).
In fact, all “4-wire” networks use a neutral
connection directly to earth; moreover the neutral
conductor can be earthed directly at multiple points
on the network and therefore never presents a
dangerous voltage. This layout is used in the
United States, more generally in North America,
but also in parts of South America, Australia and
other countries influenced by the USA.
“3-wire” networks use four types of earthing:
c Directly earthed neutral (Great Britain, Spain,
c R//L low-impedance neutral (France, Germany,
Spain, etc)
c Tuned or “Petersen” neutral (Germany,
Hungary, Poland, etc)
c Isolated neutral (Spain, Sweden, Norway, Italy,
China, etc)
These choices have been made on the basis of
local features, such as the respective extents of
the overhead and underground networks.
Changes are possible, but often have serious
financial implications (major work and expensive
changes of equipment).
Fig. 5: Various earthing layouts for MV distribution networks
Neutral isolated
from earth
a tuned circuit
Neutral earthed via
an impedance
Neutral distributed
with numerous
earthing points
Neutral earthed
directly and
2.2 Operating voltages
The operating voltages used by energy
distributors are between 5 and 33 kV. The lowest
voltages are only found for networks with a
limited coverage, usually in urban areas. Some
operating voltages are currently being phased
out, but this is happening over a long timescale
due to the slow rate at which networks are
Two important standards systems coexist and
recommend various preferred voltage values:
c The International Electrotechnical Commission
(IEC) is the reference for the majority of
c The American National Standards Institute
(ANSI) is the reference for countries which are,
or have in the past been, influenced by the USA.
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.9
These standards systems have introduced the
concept of “rated voltage”, a value which serves
to define all the characteristics of the equipment.
The table in figure 6 gives some of the values
which are most commonly found, but the majority
of countries use a number of voltage levels.
Fig. 6: Examples of voltage values used for public distribution
Operating voltage (kV) Country Rated voltage (kV) Standard
6 Japan 7.2 IEC
10 to 12 United Kingdom, Germany, 12 IEC
13.8 USA, Australia 15 ANSI
15 (being phased out) 17.5 IEC
20 France, Italy, Spain 24 IEC
25 USA 27 ANSI
33 Turkey 36 IEC
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.10
When the distributed power on the last segment
is low, the protection furthest away from the
substation is often in the form of fuses, for
reasons of cost.
3 Characteristics of “4-wire” systems
“4-wire” systems are characterized by distribution
of the MV neutral right to the loads. This type of
distribution is used in the USA and in certain
countries influenced by North America, and is
always subject to ANSI regulations. It is only used
in a “directly earthed” neutral plan, and applies a
global earthing concept consisting of earthing the
neutral conductor at multiple points on the
network, approximately every 200 meters. The
neutral-earth voltage is therefore fully controlled.
Distribution of the neutral conductor enables
power to be supplied to the loads between the
neutral and one phase (to the single voltage): a
significant part of the energy is therefore
consumed in single-phase. In a normal operating
situation, this single-phase use, whose
proliferation is not totally controlled by the
distributor, results in the presence of a current in
the neutral conductor or the earth. It is generally
acknowledged that the load unbalance between
the various phases can be as much as 40% of
the rated current for a feeder.
Due to the direct earthing, the current for a
directly earthed fault is mainly limited by the
impedance of the network segment between the
HV/MV transformer and the location of the fault.
This situation calls for the use of “decentralized”
protection, capable of managing increasingly low
thresholds as the distance increases, and
nonetheless capable of being coordinated. The
resulting protection system is complex and
poorly suited to network reconfiguration, in the
event of an incident. This system should also be
adapted to each significant modification for a
feeder, whether in terms of impedance or
topology, which constitutes a major constraint in
terms of upgradability.
3.1 Protection system for networks with distributed neutral (“4-wire”)
In these networks, the unbalanced current due
to single-phase loads can “mask” an earth fault
current. In fact, protection cannot discriminate
between the current of a phase-neutral load
and the current of a phase-earth fault if they
have comparable values. The value of the
phase-earth fault current is linked on the one
hand to the expected impedance of the fault
itself, and on the other hand to the network
impedance between the HV/MV power supply
transformer and the location of the fault. It
therefore varies according to the distance from
the fault to the substation. For rather long lines,
a phase-earth fault a long way away can cause
a lower current than the unbalanced current
permitted at the substation feeder; in this case,
a protection device placed in the substation will
not be capable of detecting this fault. An
additional protection device with lower
thresholds is then necessary to extend the part
of the network which is actually monitored,
known as the “protection zone”. In a network,
the higher the impedance of the faults to be
eliminated, the smaller the protection zone for
each device.
Therefore, in order to have adequate detection
of faults on this type of network, where the
normal load currents diminish the greater the
distance from the substation, a number of
protection devices should be placed in cascade
(see fig. 7).
Fig. 7: Example of a North American distribution
network comprising a number of protection devices
placed in cascade: Note how the protection zones
Recloser: overhead multiple
reclosing circuit-breaker
Zone protected by the recloser
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.11
As far as the underground parts (using cables)
of networks are concerned, they generally
cover a smaller area than an overhead network
and have lower impedance, therefore the value
of a phase-earth fault current is only slightly
affected by the distance from the fault to the
substation. Nonetheless, in order to serve
limited zones from a trunk cable, these
networks also include single-phase junctions
protected by fuses.
3.2 Operation of networks with distributed neutral (“4-wire”)
Operation of this type of network may be
characterized by two major difficulties:
c Electrical risks due to possible high-
impedance faults which are difficult to detect
c When a loop is required for good continuity of
service, it should be of sufficiently low
impedance to be in the protection zone.
The previous sections explained the difficulty of
diagnosing high-impedance earth faults. Recent
American publications (1999) note the fact that,
in more than half of the operations to re-erect
conductors which had fallen to the ground, the
conductors on the ground were still energized
when the technicians arrived. These situations
represent high risks for both people and
equipment (electrocution or fire).
When the neutral is distributed, two network
structures can be distinguished according to
whether or not a loopable connection which
does not incorporate decentralized protection is
Presence of a loopable connection which
does not incorporate decentralized
If such a loop exists, it is necessarily at low
impedance so that it can be entirely in the
protection zone of the HV/MV substation
devices (see fig. 8). This is typically the case
for dense urban geographical areas with
underground distribution.
The loop can be used according to the open
loop principle in order to benefit from the
capacity to return to service associated with this
layout, if an incident concerning the cable
occurs on the loop itself. From this loop,
junctions equipped with protection devices can
be created in single-phase or three-phase
(see fig. 9). They may be organized into
sub-loops if necessary, to benefit from the
same operating mode, but these sub-loops
should be entirely in the protection zone of the
junction devices.
Due to the limited impedances of the cable
segments, and the existence of only two levels
of protection to be managed, such a system
may be considered to be satisfactory in terms of
upgradability. Any geographical extension is
nonetheless limited by the need to respect the
protection zones.
Fig. 8: For complete protection of a power supply loop
against earth faults, this loop should be entirely
contained in the protection zone for the HV/MV
substation devices.
N 1
N 2
N 3 N 1
N 2
N 3
Zone protected
by the HV/MV
substation devices
HV/MV substation
Fig. 9: These are the HV/MV substation devices
which protect the main loop, and both ends of each
junction organized as a sub-loop incorporate
protection devices to ensure the safety of the various
possible configurations.
Main loop
Components powered by the sub-loop whose
earth fault protection is provided by A or B
depending on the configuration.
Zone protected by
the HV/MV
substation devices
HV/MV substation
Zone protected
by A or B
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.12
Presence of connections which are
physically capable of being looped, but
incorporate decentralized protection devices
When the network is structured around radial
feeders, with cascaded protection devices,
“emergency” type layouts are not permitted,
although the topology itself would allow it. In fact,
a load reconnection, even temporary, which
occurs at the end of a tree structure would
necessitate redefining the protection thresholds
and the discrimination stages of the various
devices concerned. Since these settings are the
result of fairly complex calculations, taking into
account the lengths and the types of the various
segments, there is no chance that incidents
could be handled by modifying the settings.
Operation is therefore limited to radial mode, and
the incident situations may entail long periods
without power until they are repaired.
For similar reasons, any upgrading of the
topology or the network load level involves
checking the compatibility of the protection
devices in place. Modifying this type of network
is therefore a very delicate and expensive
operation. Such a system can only be
considered mediocre in terms of upgradability.
Whatever the network structure, faults which
cause the current protection devices to work can
be located easily using detectors which react to
overcurrents. These fault detectors, placed on
the phase conductors, work with both faults
between phases and earth faults.
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.13
4 Characteristics of “3-wire” systems
In these systems, the neutral is not distributed
and therefore is not available to users. Loads,
even single-phase, can only be connected to
phases of the network. They do not therefore
generate any neutral current in the distribution
system and, excluding any capacitive unbalance
between the phase conductors, the residual
current of such a system is zero.
The network neutral point, which remains
exclusively available to the distributor, can be
earthed via an impedance of any value and
type. In practice, four main neutral plans are
used: isolated, tuned, impedant or directly
If the value of the neutral earthing impedance is
significant compared to the network impedances,
the resulting zero-sequence impedance fixes, de
facto, the maximum value of the earth fault
current. In this zero-sequence impedance, the
neutral impedance should be considered to be in
parallel with all the network phase-earth
capacitances. These capacitances may reach
high values and contribute significantly to the
earth fault current. In all cases, due to the
absence of residual current during operation, all
earth faults can be detected at the substation.
Depending on the neutral impedance, the
adopted protection method may vary, but there
is no technical obligation to use decentralized
protection devices. The protection system can
therefore be kept fairly simple, with the
advantage that it does not require modification if
changes are made to the network configuration.
4.1 Protection system for networks with non-distributed neutral (“3-wire”)
In networks with non-distributed neutral, loads
are necessarily connected between phases and
when the neutral earthing connection exists, no
continuous current flows through it. This situation
is purely theoretical: capacitive currents which
exist between the phase conductors and earth
are never perfectly balanced. This unbalance is
due to the differences in geometry on overhead
lines, inside transformers, on the cable runs for
the various phases, etc. However, if when the
network is constructed, the distributor takes the
precaution of swapping over the phase
conductors along each feeder, the residual
continuous current for each feeder can be
reduced to less than 1 A, or even much less with
an isolated neutral. This type of natural residual
current can then be used to diagnose the
presence of low-value earth fault currents from
the substation.
Since the orders of magnitude of these fault
currents can be noticeably different from those
for a “4-wire” system, the protection to be
provided is also different.
Network with isolated neutral
The network is said to be with “isolated neutral”
when there is no deliberate physical connection
between the transformer MV neutral point and
earth. The transformer can also have a
delta-connected MV winding. The network
average voltage in relation to the earth is
therefore fixed by the stray impedance between
the phase conductors and earth. These
impedances include the capacitance of the lines
and cables, which are predominant, but also the
leakage impedances of different types of
equipment (lightning arresters, measurement
sensors, etc) and those of any faults. The
residual voltage, which is the vectorial sum of the
three phase-earth voltages, of such a network is
never perfect zero. Monitoring this voltage can
provide a good indication of the network
insulation quality, since any fault between a
phase and earth causes a marked unbalance in
impedance and increase in the residual voltage.
However, this information, which is common to
the whole network, does not make it possible to
locate the fault.
In the case of a clear fault to earth (negligible
impedance direct contact), the phase-earth
voltage is zero for the phase concerned and
equals the phase-to-phase network voltage for
the two other phases. The currents present in
the phase-earth capacitance of the three phase
conductors then no longer form a balanced
three-phase set: a residual current which is not
zero circulates throughout the network. Its
intensity, at each feeder circuit-breaker, depends
on the length and type of the connections and of
the equipment placed downstream. Use of an
overcurrent protection device does not therefore
make it possible to discriminate simply and
efficiently which of the healthy feeders is faulty.
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.14
Networks with isolated neutral can be used with
a sustained earth fault (detected and not
eliminated). This operating mode is sometimes
used to improve continuity of service, since it
enables location of the fault while continuing to
serve customers. The risk associated with
sustaining an earth fault is that a second fault of
the same type may appear on one of the other
phases. This second fault creates a short-circuit
while the healthy phases are, vis-a-vis the earth,
maintained at a voltage which equals the
phase-to-phase voltage during the whole time of
operation with a sustained fault.
Network with tuned neutral (Petersen coil)
The network is called “tuned” or “earthed via a
Petersen coil” when, in connecting the neutral to
earth, a high-quality coil whose inductance value
is adjusted in order to obtain tuning (resonance
conditions) is placed between the capacitances
of the network and this coil (see fig. 10). When
earthing one of the network phases, this tuning
results in a very low current in the fault
(Id = I
- I
). This current is only due to the
imperfection in tuning, the capacitive unbalance
between the phases and the coil resistive losses.
The normal order of magnitude of this type of
fault current is a few amps (typically 2 to 20 A).
The resonance condition is expressed by the
formula LCω
= 1, where:
L = neutral inductance
C = zero-sequence capacitance of the network
(sum of the phase-earth capacitances of the
three phases)
ω = network pulsation (ω = 2πF = 100π for a
network at 50 Hz).
Fig. 10: Operating principle for an earthing coil whose inductance value is tuned to the capacitive value of the
Neutral point
current I
currents I
current Id
When a fault occurs: I
≈ - I
⇒ Id

Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.15
If this resonance condition is sustained, during
variations of the network configuration and even
during variations in climatic conditions, it implies
that the coil can be adjusted with good definition.
Tuning is generally performed by a control
This neutral plan has a major advantage in that
numerous faults are self-extinguishing, typically
all air gap flashovers. It therefore offers good
continuity of service for networks which
incorporate lots of overhead lines. It is clear that
insulation faults within equipment and cables
(especially underground) do not benefit from this
behavior. In addition, networks with tuned neutral
can be used with a sustained earth fault, like
networks with isolated neutral. The limit of this
operation is most commonly associated with the
thermal withstand of the neutral impedance
which is subjected to single voltage for the whole
duration of the fault.
The main disadvantage of the tuned neutral
resides in the difficulty in locating a continuous
fault and certain recurrent faults. This difficulty
comes from the low value of the current flowing
across a fault compared to the high value of the
capacitive currents which circulate
simultaneously on all the lines. Simple residual
current detection cannot therefore tell the
difference between a healthy feeder and the
faulty feeder. It is necessary to introduce
directional residual overcurrent protection, or
even residual overpower protection in order to
ensure high-performance discrimination. The use
of such protection is possible at the source
substations, but is totally unrealistic (complex
and expensive) in the plants installed along the
network. Finally, fault detectors operating on the
same principle (directional) would be too
expensive and do not therefore exist. For this
reason, use of the network is seriously
compromised when continuous fault type
incidents occur: the power can only be switched
back on once the lines have been inspected and
successive attempts at reclosing made.
These difficulties make this neutral plan
unworthy of consideration for networks with a
high proportion of underground cables. However,
recent technological developments have enabled
the creation of new detectors which operate with
inexpensive sensors. This development could
remove some of the present operating difficulties
for networks with compensated neutral.
Network with impedant neutral
For this type of network, a limiting impedance,
generally resistive, is inserted in the neutral earth
connection. It can also include an inductive part,
in order to compensate partially for the
capacitive contribution from the network. With
public distribution, no networks are earthed by a
single non-tuned inductance.
The value of the impedance is always high
compared to the line impedances and, therefore,
a directly earthed fault current varies according
to the location of the fault: it is a few hundred
amps (100 to 2000 A approx). This high level of
earth fault currents, as well as the
preponderance of the component circulating in
the neutral impedance, make it easy to detect
earth faults:
c A “residual overcurrent” type protection device,
with sufficiently high threshold values to not be
affected by capacitive or transient phenomena,
works correctly on these networks.
c Discrimination between feeders is easy due to
the significant value of the fault current, and
discrimination between protection devices
arranged in cascade is obtained by time-based
operation (defined time or IDMT protection)
However, the possible existence of impedance
earth faults which are not insignificant compared
to the neutral impedance makes it desirable to
search for the lowest settings, while guarding
against unintentional tripping. For faults with very
high impedance, residual current protection
devices can no longer discriminate, and
additional devices, such as automated detection
systems with successive opening of the various
feeders, are added in the source substations.
In numerous situations, when the load
downstream of the protection device is low,
protection against directly earthed faults can be
provided by phase overcurrent detection. This is
why certain distributors do not systematically put
residual current protection on these types of
circuit (for example: junction supplying an MV/LV
Locating faults on these networks is made easier
by the fact that simple, reasonably-priced fault
detectors can be used, which are capable of
reacting to a directly earthed fault current. Their
nonetheless limited sensitivity means that certain
faults with significant impedance, although
diagnosed by the source substation protection
devices, do not cause them to react (insufficient
current). It is, however, possible to choose lower
thresholds with the single inconvenience of
causing unnecessary signaling, since the
unintentional operation of a fault detector does
not generally have significant consequences.
Network with directly earthed neutral
The directly earthed neutral can be interpreted
as a special case (as is insignificant neutral
impedance) of the impedant neutral. These are
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.16
therefore exclusively impedances concerning the
network (source and line), the fault and return via
the earth, which fix the intensity of the fault
current. Therefore, the generally high fault
current intensities can present significant
variations depending on the fault location and
type, and as a consequence lead to
reconfiguration difficulties; for example when
reconfiguring a network with notably longer
feeders in an emergency situation than in a
normal situation. This effect can be achieved by
the adoption of detection thresholds, as low as
possible, designed to diagnose directly earthed
faults and also impedant faults.
The detection of earth faults is simple. Very often
the same type of protection can be used in
respect of faults between phases and earth
faults. The “fault detector” function is simple to
provide using phase overcurrent detection, or
possibly residual overcurrent detection.
In this layout, where earth faults can have high
intensities, they may result in significant
damage. It is therefore desirable to choose short
protection intervention times. This situation,
associated with the ever-present need for
discrimination in a distribution network, favors
the use of IDMT protection (often known as
“inverse time” protection).
4.2 Operation of networks with non-distributed neutral ("3-wire")
The structure of these networks is mainly radial,
or radial with the option of looping, or looped.
Numerous other configurations exist which
combine these basic structures.
They operate most commonly on an open
circuit. However, in order to ensure a high level
of availability of energy for their customers,
some distributors use closed loops equipped
with circuit-breakers at each MV/LV transformer
substation. But such installations are expensive
and require delicate handling.
In open-circuit operation, the main
characteristic of "3-wire" networks is that they
allow detection of all earth faults, whatever their
location, from the HV/MV substation. Faults
between phases are also managed from the
HV/MV substation: decentralized protection is
only necessary if there is an exceptionally long
line, in fact once it becomes impossible to
discriminate a distant fault between two phase
conductors, in the permitted load current for the
Centralized protection offers total freedom to
modify the network. Hence it is possible to
provide a number of emergency layouts with
numerous loop feeders to cope with different
types of incident: if the basic layout for normal
operation of a high-density consumption area
encompassing numerous customers is the open
loop, loop feeders can also be provided at the
end of lines with a radial structure, which may
limit the loads which can be resupplied after the
interruption (see fig. 11).
Freedom of modification also allows extensions
or restructuring of the network to be carried out,
without implications for the protection methods
and settings. This ease of upgradability offers a
very appreciable level of flexibility.
In contrast, if only centralized protection is in
place, all customers of a single feeder are
affected in the event of an incident. This could
involve very large numbers… hence the
motivation which is then equally important to
correct the situation quickly!
The use of remote control in conjunction with
fault detectors responds to this imperative for
speed of intervention: depending on the amount
of remotely controlled switchgear, it allows a
significant part of the affected customer base to
be reconnected to the supply (usually
over 60%).
A three-stage approach is used by the
distributor’s teams to get the power supply
c 1: Reconfiguration by remote control
c 2: Manual reconfiguration, in the field, using
isolation switchgear which is not remotely
c 3: Repair if necessary
Special remote control points can be introduced
with the sole aim of improving quality of service,
since no technical imperative makes it
necessary to use a particular location on the
Some distributors install decentralized
protection device, simply in order to provide
quality of service and not because of a
fundamental need to eliminate faults. It should
be noted that the defined discrimination criteria
which need to be respected between these
protection devices and those of the HV/MV
substation are markedly less sensitive than for
networks with distributed neutral. Moreover,
modifications to the topology or load do not
generally have any adverse effect on these
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.17
Fig. 11: Example of a distribution network layout where the centralized protection allows different operating
configurations to be used (a = configuration for normal operation, b = configuration after an incident reducing the
number of customers affected, c = configuration for resupply with limitations on the load)
Note: The current flows through switch K in opposite directions in configurations a and b; the same applies to
switch X in configurations b and c
HV/MV substation -A- HV/MV substation -B-
Circuit powered
by A
by B
Loads transferred
from A to B
HV/MV substation -A- HV/MV substation -B-
HV/MV substation -A- HV/MV substation -B-
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.18
5 Operating voltage, selection criteria
5.1 Voltage losses and drops
The losses for an MV distribution network
essentially correspond to the heat dissipation
due to the Joule effect in the conductors. This is
therefore a cost criterion, since they downgrade
the global efficiency coefficient for the network.
They are proportional to the square of the
current and, with a given distributed power, are
inversely proportional to the square of the
operating voltage. For this reason, it is desirable
to use a high operating voltage in order to
minimize them, but other factors, mainly
cost-related, may counter this advantage.
Voltage drops at the perimeter of the customer
delivery area (see fig. 12) correspond to the
difference (∆U) between the no-load (e) and
on-load voltages for the network (U
). The
current magnitude and phase (ϕ) are determined
by the power and nature of the load. Since the
network behaves in an essentially inductive way,
the voltage drop for the line (U
) is almost 90°
out of phase with the current.
Different regulations define the limit voltage
values that distributors should comply with at the
point of delivery. For example, a tolerance of
± 10% on the low voltage network and a
tolerance of ± 7.5% on the medium voltage
network may be required simultaneously. It
becomes increasingly difficult to comply with
these tolerances as the distributed power
increases. For given conductor lengths and
cross-sections, a higher power supply voltage
authorizes a higher delivered power with the
same tolerances. Where a maximum voltage
drop is imposed, the table in figure 13 illustrates
the transmission capacity of a line according to
its cross-section and operating voltage.
Appreciation of the capacitance of a network is a
planning tool: it can be used to initiate operations
to reinforce lines or create new lines when the
potential growth of the inrush power is
approaching the permitted limits. Although it is
technically possible to change operating voltage,
it is rarely done in this situation, since such an
operation presents numerous difficulties:
replacement of all the transformers, a large part
of the conductors, the switchgear and the
isolators, etc. It is therefore very important that
this voltage is selected correctly at the time of
creating the network, at a suitable level which
takes account of the anticipated development of
loads over a period of several decades.
5.2 Insulation difficulties and associated costs
Although the criteria discussed earlier encourage
the use of a high operating voltage, a compromise
must nonetheless be found in order for the
network to be cost-effective. It goes without
saying that the price of the various components
increases significantly with the operating voltage.
Impact of the voltage on the equipment
The various types of equipment used should be
designed with insulation adapted to the operating
voltage as well as to the various exceptional
constraints which apply to this voltage level.
Standardization has resulted in coherent sets of
values, known as “insulation levels”, which
associate a maximum operating voltage with
withstand voltages in specific conditions. These
conditions are usually described as “lighting
impulse withstand”, and “power frequency
withstand”. Hence a device for a 10 or 11 kV
Fig. 12: Graphic representation of voltage losses and
drops on the line
≈ 90°
Fig. 13: Relationships between power transported by a
line and the cross-section and length of this line, for
aluminium conductors with a steel core
MW x km
Where ∆U / U = 7.5% and cos ϕ = 0.9
15 20 33
54.6 22 39 105
75.5 28 49 133
117 37 66 175
148.1 42 76 205
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.19
network should be selected in a 12 kV range
with a power frequency withstand of 28 kV for
one minute, and a lightning impulse withstand of
75 kV with the standard test wave (example of
IEC values).
In terms of equipment design, these various
constraints result in insulation thicknesses and
distances which differ in the air or in a gas, and
therefore in different overall dimensions.
Example: “switch” cells with air insulation and SF6
cells, using the same technology have, depending
on the voltage, the following dimensions
(Height x Depth x Width):
c Un = 24 kV : 1600 x 910 x 375 mm
c Un = 36 kV : 2250 x 1500 x 750 mm
The same applies to all the network
components. Only overhead line conductors
escape this criterion: they are insulated by the
ambient air and the distances are fixed by the
construction (rails and isolators) of the masts.
Another consideration is that technologies are
only available for certain voltage levels, for
example, air break switchgear for indoor use is
only available for the 36 kV level and has
practically disappeared at the 24 kV level.
Finally, use of cables may be limited for
transporting alternating current. In fact, their
capacity relative to earth being a function of their
length and insulation (and therefore of the
voltage level) seriously reduces the current
available at the end of the cable connections
(see fig. 14). As a consequence, in very high
voltage transmission networks, the length of the
cable segments is always limited. This is a major
reason why direct current is most commonly
chosen for high-voltage insulated connections
where overhead lines cannot be used.
Impact on cost
The criteria discussed previously have a direct
impact on equipment manufacturing costs, and
on market prices. Moreover, equipment
manufacturers are not all able to offer
comprehensive ranges that include the highest
operating voltages (36 to 52 kV). The “supplier”
market is therefore more restricted and less
competitive than for the lowest operating
voltages (7.2 to 24 kV). Nonetheless, this effect
on the price is sometimes minimal, as is the case
for cables with synthetic insulation which have a
broadly similar transmission capacity, for
c 240 mm
alu / 24 kV: 7.31 ke / km
c 150 mm
alu / 36 kV: 7.77 ke / km ie. + 6%
(1999 list prices)
But the user should also consider the associated
costs, such as those concerning accessories,
the external dimensions of an installation, and
safe distances to be maintained with respect to
lines, etc.
Fig. 14: Effect of leakage capacitances on the available current, and therefore on the output power, at the end of a
cable connection
Load Distributed
Nominal current of the
cable connection
5.3 Evolution of MV networks throughout the world
As we enter the twenty-first century, there is still
a wide disparity in energy requirements between
different countries.
Major growth in MV public distribution can be
observed in numerous countries, with a clear
bias in the selection of network structures
towards the intermediate range of operating
voltages, between 15 and 25 kV, for example:
c Japan, where the majority of the distribution
network is 6 kV, is preparing to upgrade to 22 kV
c France is gradually replacing its 5.5 kV and
15 kV networks with 20 kV networks, whereas
the 33 kV level is stagnating, if not regressing
c China, who is looking to use 20 kV in order to
support its strong economic growth and improve
the overall operation of its networks, presently
12 kV
Cahier Technique Schneider Electric no. 203 / p.20
6 Conclusions
The various systems and options discussed in
this document share a fundamental aspect
common to any MV distribution network, in that
they all have numerous implications. They are
therefore particularly difficult to consider on
existing networks. However, with the regular
general increase of electricity consumption,
certain situations mean that barriers to
development are reached and have to be
overcome, or that opportunities for re-examining
these basic decisions present themselves.
In this context, it is therefore sensible to initiate
or implement far-reaching changes in the context
of large-scale upgrade operations, following
generalized obsolescence or exceptional events.
Moreover, the historical situations which justified
the initial decisions often no longer apply, and
new factors gain importance. In particular,
aspects relating to safety, quality and continuity
of service, respect for the living environment,
compatibility with other equipment, etc, are now
overwhelmingly important criteria. A number of
social or macro-economic phenomena underlie
or encourage these changes.
The major electrical equipment manufacturers
have already taken on board the resulting needs
of energy distributors, due to these changes. The
equipment offered responds to these needs.
But it is the distributors who, in response to rapid
developments in their environment, both political
and geographical, need to think ahead, and view
the upgradability of a system as a basic selection
Schneider Electric Direction Scientifique et Technique,
Service Communication Technique
F-38050 Grenoble cedex 9
Fax: 33 (0)4 76 57 98 60
Transl: Lloyd International - Tarporley - Cheshire - GB.
Edition: Schneider Electric.
Printing: Imprimerie du Pont de claix - Claix - 1000.
- 100 FF- ©


05-2001 17177

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